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Proving knowledge by degrees: MOOCs and the challenge of assessment

Traditionally, students took exams on site at a university. But how does assessment work with online courses? Exam image from

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have certainly got higher education folks talking. These free online courses, often from prestigious universities, have prompted one obvious question: why should students pay to go to university when they can get quality courses for free?

The short answer is that universities don’t just teach: they give credentials. Universities have long been the gatekeepers to further study and professional careers. Degrees, grades and exam results – all derived from assessment tasks – are signals of knowledge, and past and predicted performance.

So far, I have found many MOOCs to be pretty disappointing. Information is delivered in traditional ways – a 50 minute video of a lecture is still a 50 minute lecture.

Some are great learning experiences; many are not. Discussions mean reading and typing on screen. And the assessment – the credentialing piece of the puzzle – is often reduced to automated quizzes to cope with scale.

But innovative MOOCs are now testing new ways of interacting, assessing, and providing credentials.

Online assessment

The primary question for many in the online education space is: how do we know the person performing assessment online is the person who receives the credential? And how can you prevent plagiarism or cheating online?

In the offline world, we can do this relatively easily with supervised testing – the kind universities have in big exam halls at the end of term. It’s pretty good, but not watertight. But when assessment is online there are many more loopholes.

Increasingly there are new innovative ways to prevent cheating during online exams and assessment, including online proctoring of exams where humans monitor the student taking an online test using web cams; browser lockdowns to prevent “googling” for answers; keystroke pattern recognition on a computer keyboard; and plagiarism detection software.

Offering online proctored exams, like ProctorU is one way of getting around the MOOC cheating conundrum. ProctorU

There are also test centres where students can go to do a face-to-face exam for an online course — some MOOCs now provide credit if the student undertakes a supervised exam at a testing centre.

Evidence and assessment

As we go down the online path, innovation is not only needed for credentials but assessment too. Of course, there are many different forms of assessment – some more adaptable to online environments than others. And some are better at conveying a better picture of achievement.

For example, it’s a good idea to test a student pharmacist’s knowledge of drugs and their interactions, and probably an even better idea to assess their abilities to apply that knowledge, engaging with patients under pressure in a real or simulated pharmacy.

The latter is more “authentic” because it more closely replicates what happens in the profession — but it’s more expensive and challenging to do online and offline.

Perhaps instead of focusing on how we test students, a more purposeful question might be: presuming we know what outcomes we need students to achieve, and at what standard, what evidence will enable us to judge that this student is ready to graduate? In other words, assessment tasks are opportunities for students to create evidence of learning achievements in an array of formats.

Portfolios are one option and can include selected learning evidence from a range of sources, including reports, montages, case studies and analyses, supervised and take home tests, individual and group problem-solving tasks, placement reports and so on. Online portfolios let owners curate the evidence and share selected pieces with particular audiences (such as assessors and potential employers).

New digital badging technologies can be added to portfolios to enable peers, mentors and teachers to give credit for learning achievements (a bit like LinkedIn endorsements but based on actual artifacts rather than reputation). Good student portfolios should train students in the habit of matching assertions about their abilities with evidence.

An even more authentic (and authenticated) assessment option is the oral defense – on- or offline. Just like a job interview, this requires the candidate to field unforeseen questions and scenarios, and demonstrate their emotional intelligence as a future simpatico professional.

After all, this is often how new employees are recruited. We might do well to design some of our assessing and credentialing “gates” along similar lines.

New ways in difficult times

Money is getting too tight to mention in higher education. A large chunk of every dollar spent on teaching is on assessment processes – creating exams, printing papers, supervising, collecting, marking, moderating and uploading results.

Re-imagining assessment tasks to be more authentic, authenticated and cost effective has the potential to change the heart of the enterprise. That’s a great challenge in the online space, but MOOCs are already pioneers, and it’s exciting to be part of it.

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